China Seeks UN Crackdown on Internet Freedom
Democracies are failing to oppose Beijing’s unprecedented plan to restrict the world’s internet freedom.
Beijing’s proposal to re-write internet rules and re-engineer its plumbing, supposedly to achieve security at 6G speeds, might lead to more censorship by dictatorships, the BBC told lawmakers in Britain.
“China is currently promoting a new method of managing internet traffic that will, if successful, provide an easy means to inhibit the flow of international media,” according to the BBC.
Those plans also include a requirement for users around the world to register for internet use. They could then be deregistered according to the will of governments.
The BBC’s warning came in evidence submitted to the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The Chinese proposal would radically change internet standards and has a high probability of passing the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is a United Nations agency that regulates information and communication technologies.
Chinese and Russian state media currently have free access to Western markets, but the proposed U.N. internet rules could stifle users’ access to Western media far beyond China’s borders. International media that manage to leap China’s digital firewall is a critical counterweight to the fake news fed to citizens in countries, like China, that have access to few other Western outlets.
The groups proposing internet restrictions include China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Huawei, and other Chinese state-run companies. In promotional materials provided to the ITU, they label the draconian restrictions with nondescript names such as “New IP” (internet protocol) and “future vertical communication networks.”
Beijing proponents argue that giving governments greater control over internet traffic will build in security, optimizing network speeds and efficiency for technologies like virtual and augmented reality. Current internet protocols, designed for academic and military use, they argue, are outdated.
Huawei representatives proposed that national governments take control of the internet from its current owners, everybody and anybody with a server. They attempted to wow ITU representatives with images of life-sized holograms and self-driving cars when they first presented the idea, which lacked technical details, in 2019.
China proposes itself, of course, to build this New IP for a brave new world, which is central to the regime’s “digital foreign policy.” The Financial Times in 2020 paraphrased a Huawei representative claiming that it is “leading an ITU group that is focused on future network technology needed by the year 2030, and [the] New IP is being tailored to meet those demands.”
Some argue that the unregulated internet is currently controlled by America’s big tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. So a shift from this unregulated system that Americans dominate, to a regulated system that China might dominate, would be a major loss to democracy and decentralization on a global scale. Even if China does not dominate the internet, the new regulations it proposes could empower governments at the expense of citizens.
“The US, UK and Europe, for example, are interested in adapting the current system to introduce more regulatory power, and give intelligence agencies greater access to users’ personal data,” according to the Financial Times.
This might explain the failure of leading democracies to oppose Beijing’s illiberal ideas for a future internet. They themselves are looking for ways to narrow privacy protections that could help them enforce laws, for example, against terrorism.
Another explanation for the failure of the West to defy Beijing’s plans for the national balkanization of the internet is that Western governments may be powerless against Beijing’s proposal, other than to sanction its proponents economically. The unregulated nature of the global internet makes the web into a power vacuum waiting for authoritarian governments to fill.
According to the Financial Times, sources who were present at ITU meetings in 2019 and 2020 claimed that “Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia have previously shown support for Chinese proposals for alternative network technologies.” Furthermore, “the proposals revealed that the blueprints for this new network have already been drawn up, and construction is under way. Any country will be free to adopt it,” the report said.
Ultimately, national capitals control the data pipes through which the internet flows. The West allows free data flow, but China is innovating controls on that data that can be adopted by other countries.
According to experts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “intrinsic security means that individuals must register to use the internet, and authorities can shut off an individual user’s internet access at any time. In short, Huawei is looking to integrate China’s ‘social credit,’ surveillance, and censorship regimes into the internet’s architecture.”
The BBC made the point that many nations, including Britain, were not vocally opposing the measure, which China could get passed through its checkbook diplomacy among most nations at the U.N. Western media sometimes falls into repeating CCP talking points on the issue, which demonstrates the BBC’s concerns.
In 2020, Financial Times reporters wrote, “Governments everywhere seem to agree that today’s model of internet governance—essentially, lawless self-regulation by private, mostly American companies—is broken.”
Really? Then governments everywhere need to get schooled on the importance of freedom of speech and democracy. America currently leads in the defense of these principles, in an admittedly weak fashion, but more thoroughly than most European and Asian democracies.
In sum, the CCP seeks to export its censorship of the internet globally and make money in the process. Democracies are not doing their job, which is to protect the freedoms for which their founders fought and died.
Regular citizens must step up and pressure their governments to more aggressively defend their internet freedoms. Citizens in democracies are lucky enough to have the option today to accelerate the use of the very free speech that they are about to lose tomorrow.
Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”